Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Counties balking at giving officers discretion on low-level arrests

A lot of Texas counties with jail overcrowding problems have chosen so far to stare the proverbial gift horse in the mouth rather than implement a new statute passed by the Legislature last year to help the problem, reports the Dallas Morning News ("Marijuana tickets not catching on," Dec. 31).

The News mistakenly reported that Travis County is the only jurisdiction using the new authority; I know Colorado County set up a system to do so, as did Jeffereson County, and the Hays, Navarro, and Palo Pinto Sheriffs reportedly are using the new discretion.

Quite a few other jurisdictions are still looking at the logistical details, but those seem surmountable: Others have figured out how to do it, after all. The bigger barrier to implementation are attitudes of local officials, summarized by a Collin County ADA:
For Greg Davis, Collin County's first assistant district attorney, one of his qualms with the new law is the perception created by ticketing for a drug offense, instead of making an arrest.

"It may... lead some people to believe that drug use is no more serious than double parking," Mr. Davis said. "We don't want to send that message to potential drug users, particularly young people."

Regular readers know I consider all laws designed to "send a message" to be fundamentally flawed. Justice policies should be based on desired outcomes, not some esoteric "message" that no one receives. If you want to send a message, rent a billboard. That's not the function of an arrest.

Besides, what message does it send for jails to be dangerously overcrowded? What message does it send to house nonviolent offenders with dangerous ones? What message does it send to take officers off the streets for low-level crimes when more serious offenders are at large? For that matter, what message does it send that the War on Drugs incarcerates tens of thousands of people statewide and yet drugs are as widely available as ever? Why aren't officials worried about THOSE messages?

Officers still have discretion to arrest under HB 2391 if they think there's a reason; the bill only gives them an option to issue a citation when an arrest isn't really necessary. If there's an obvious flight risk or a question whether the suspect can be identified in court, the statute retains officers' authority to arrest them. It only gives departments another tool to bolster understaffed police forces and reduce unnecessary jail overcrowding, both of which to my mind improve public safety.

It's been fascinating to me how this debate has come to center around arresting for marijuana, even though the law designates several other B misdemeanors (graffiti, criminal trespass, driving with an invalid license, etc.) for using optional citations. In some of these jurisdictions where opposition centers mainly on pot, perhaps proponents should attempt to implement the new authority only for the other listed offenses - just getting the folks with invalid licenses out of the jails would be a big help.

Certainly by giving locals discretion, HB 2391 as written assumes that counties where local officials disapprove of the idea don't have to use the new authority. But then, voters in those counties should oppose on principle new jail building schemes. It's one thing to tell voters they should pay for a new jail because they have to, and quite another to build one as an optional expense.

HB 2391 saves taxpayers' money and focuses scarce criminal justice resources on more serious offenses, while still prosecuting non-violent B misdemeanors just like in the past. In counties like Harris, Dallas and Bexar where jail overcrowding has reached crisis levels, IMO it borders on irresponsible not to use this discretion. Officials need to get over their fear of being labeled "soft" on drugs and do what's best for their constituents' safety and the county's bottom line.



Anonymous said...

I read this same narrowly focused story in the San Angelo Standard Times. Same narrow minded thinking your blasting with this blog. Grits should be required reading for every DA and Journalist in the State.

Thanks again for all your good work!

Anonymous said...

Navarro County's sheriff said he'd cite and summons, but the local PD's refuse to.

That's going to continue to be an issue even when sheriff's departments start on a wider basis. Sheriffs run the county jails, and see the impact it makes. Cities could care less, they just arrest and forget about them.

Anonymous said...

Grits should be required reading for every DA and Journalist in the State.

DA's don't care. They view themselves as being voted in to be tough on crime, and many have such a mindset that they put case closure over justice.

This can't just be a police department issue, because they have the discretion to say that they won't do it as a matter of policy.

I think that county commissioners should make it a rule that if a county takes in prisoners with these offenses and there's not an underlying reason for arresting as opposed to cite and summons, the arresting jurisdiction should have to pay for the increased upkeep and expenses of incarceration. In other words, you can have your jurisdiction wide policy and refuse to cite and summons, but it's going to affect your department and not everyone else.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Damn good idea, rage!

Anonymous said...

Any idea of the laws on that subject? Can a county charge a city directly, or refuse to take in their prisoners?

I remember when Paris Hilton was let out early (I'm ashamed of myself for using this as a reference), the sheriff said it was within his discretion to let them out for XYZ reasons. Then the DA went and got her put back in.

In Texas are there circumstances under which the county can release a prisoner sent by the city?

Anonymous said...

Hays County is still arresting instead of citing.

Anonymous said...

The City of Houston transfer's there prisoner's after they been charged with a Class B Mis or higher.The Harris County DA has to accept the charges before he or she can be transfered.The Harris Co.Jail can accept or reject the transfer.The only time I seen them reject anybody was for paper work being wrong or the booking section was fool.

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